icon, iconic
1. The original meaning of icon, ‘a devotional painting on wood of Christ or a saint in Byzantine Christian art’, has been all but obscured —except in specialist use or as a vague memory —by modern uses first in the language of media and marketing and then in computing. From the 1950s in America and soon after in Britain, icon has acquired an extended meaning ‘a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect’ (OED). The word is often qualified in a way that specifies the relevant domain: in 2000, for example, the press referred to

• Hollywood's female gay icons Jodie Foster, Susan Sarandon and Jamie Lee Curtis —Sunday Mail.

Other frequently occurring modifying words include culture, fashion, feminist, pop, screen, and style. This transfer of meaning is analogous to that of symbol, which is often still the better word. In computing, an icon is familiar in a more physical transfer of meaning as a symbol or graphic representation on a VDU screen of a program or function.
2. As with symbol and symbolic, developments in the meaning of icon have been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the use of iconic. This was previously a word of limited currency in the sense ‘relating to or of the nature of an icon’, and denoted in particular the conventional style of victorious athletes as depicted in ancient Greek statuary. From the 1970s it has come to be applied predominantly to a person or institution considered to be important or influential in a particular social or cultural context, and collocates with words such as status, character, and brand. Beware of redundant uses in which iconic is a meaningless ‘filler’ that tells the reader nothing because the thing described is familiar enough already (or in need of rather more explanation for the benefit of the ignorant than a vogue word will achieve):

• A passenger ferry collided with a pleasure boat under Sydney's iconic harbour bridge yesterday —Independent, 2007.

Even worse is the unintentional absurdity produced by uses such as the following, in which the writer seems blithely unaware of what an icon originally is:

• The opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 masterpiece is one of the most iconic images in cinema history —Empire, 2002.

An ‘iconic image’ is equivalent to a ‘symbolic symbol’ and no one would, in all seriousness, write such a thing. It is not pedantic to insist on this kind of awareness, but respectful of the ways in which precise and graphic old meanings underlie more generalized modern usage.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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